Book Review: The Speed of Trust, by Stephen M.R. Covey & Rebecca Merrill

 As a teacher in China, one of my biggest struggles is learning how to build bridges of trust between myself and my students. Trust in China has a very different meaning, one that when taken to extremes can turn to distrust and even abandonment. Growing up in the United States, I was secure in my notion of trust: having life-long friends who without even a thought are willing to continue being a friends after twenty years of not a word shared. In China, such a thing would not be thought possible – there might be a modicum of congeniality among old friends (much like the errant family member who shows up every three years for a yearly gathering) but trust in China is earned, not given. In the United States, trust often is considered primarily a noun, whereas in Chinese trust is a verb. The quest for learning how to establish boundaries of trust leads me into this study of Covey’s notion of trust, and will serve as a bridge I move through his themes.

One note before I begin: Stephen M.R. Covey is a direct descendant of Stephen R. Covey, the writer of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a primal book in the infancy of self-help theory and an archon of a new genre of literature. Covey the elder became famous for splitting his theories into neat segments of seven. His son, Stephen M.R. Covey, refrains from making such an outlandish claims that trust can be neatly categorized into seven different themes. For the son’s sake, I have taken inspiration from the father and split the younger Covey’s book on trust into seven themes: 1)Trust thyself, 2)trust begins in the home, 3)trust is collaborative and fluid, 4)trust must be maintained, 5)trust is an external force, 6)trust is developed behavior, and 7)trust is bound to efficiency. These themes do not appear as such in Covey’s book, but I believe they accurately summarize the most important learning points included within the text.


Trust thyself. The key to trust is self-trust, shown as the absolute central “wave” which Covey asserts governs the nature and flow of trust (34). Self-trust is indelibly linked to credibility, notably four separate cores of credibility which compose close to one quarter of Covey’s book: Integrity, intent, capability, and results. These four cores composite the building blocks of a person’s trust capacity for self-government. Covey describes building credibility as “the second most identified behavior of leaders” (48), showing the important of credibility not only as a solid state, but also as a continual action of improving oneself as a leader so that not only will others trust the leader, but the leader will trust the leader. According to Covey, credibility must be constantly improved, the policy for “reinvention is required for longevity” (93), and in today’s changing world longevity is one of the holy grails of efficiency and success.

Personal reflection is necessary for self-trust. Not only understanding but refining personal motives helps to justify intentions to the self (85), but understanding intention must be understood as a two-way process. The first process step deals with the perception of action, while the second process step is reaction to action, or understanding the perception of action through clarity of reasons for personal reaction (86). Through the act of reflection, leaders strengthen purpose and resolve, a core capability Covey believes is required for self-trust (105). All four cores are part of what Covey calls “the Ripple Effect” (135), a meta-theory which relates how particularities of one part of life echo and cause change in another part of life, with the capacity to create chaos or peace depending on how the parts align with the whole.

Trust begins in the home. While not a central theme, the concept of home is heavily rooted in Covey’s trust theory. In almost every corner of his book, the home appears. Covey believes that the family is an organization, and organizational trust is just as relevant to the family as to the organization (258). In order to engender trust within the family, the leader must declare intentions directly, without any rhetoric or illusion (140). Expectations within the family unit define responsibilities (196), and if expectations are not voiced, they are generally assumed in the lack, with responsibilities which remain undefined but accepted. Trust is broken in the family unit when responsibilities (voiced or unvoiced) are shirked; sometimes parents carry heavy expectations on children but fail to voice those expectations, while other times children expect to be treated in a certain way and the parents do not meet their expectations, leading to distrust and betrayal.

In order to create trust within the family, Covey insists to focus on the “little things” at home such as respect and gratitude (148), which can serve as helpful bridges from misunderstanding to forgiveness in times of family crisis. Family leaders should also follow the “10-year rule,” which aligns vision with the future rather than the present (219). By focusing on the short term (“little things”) as well as the long-term (“10-year rule”) family leaders can create an environment of trust and acceptance even in the harshest of climates.

Trust is collaborative and fluid. Just as in family, in an organization all members in theory are directed towards a single purpose or end-goal. The ties which bind members of an organization together create a strong collaborative bond, and trust therefore is inescapable as members of an organization rely not only on themselves but on each other (4). Covey claims that the importance of credibility within a collaborative organization is not maintained by the results of that credibility, but rather by the awareness of credibility (118). As people walk down the halls or sit in an office, others are watching them and trying to discern and map credibility. Rather than focusing on the product, people focus on the image of those surrounding them, which in turn fosters either collaboration (opportunity) or cooperation (256) as trust grows and wanes. For Covey, trust is intrinsically a collaborative economy (256), in which trust as a currency is shared between an organization and credit (166) and desired accountability (203) are used as variables in a complex exchange of human needs.

Covey is quick to point out however, that trust is not a rooted concept which grows over-time. Rather, trust is fluid and one of the fastest and quickest to change of all behaviors within an organization (25). Trust solutions are created by a process of listening (37), in which all resultant dimensions have been fully considered and weighed (112). Such dimensions include understanding the past, present, and the future, not only in their own separate spheres but together and in coordination with each other. Often, unrealistic expectations are a major breach of trust (196); expectations formed due to a lack of proper listening in which all dimensions were not carefully considered in context. By viewing trust dimensional theory in view of context, the levels of trust from one organization to another organization, from one time to another time, from one leader to another leader can vary wildly; even within the same organization an issue of trust may transpire differently one month later; the fluid nature of trust is that trust constantly shifts as attitudes and desires shift.

Trust must be maintained; it is not absolute or static. Early research into trust during the late 1950s and early 1960s tried to state that trust was a part of absolute science in which if a proper methodology was used, trust could be cemented into an organizational framework (Deutch, 1958). By the late 60s, trust was considered, rather than a scientific formula, as a figment of the personality (Rotter, 1967), yet another static element which while changeable takes considerable psychological seismic change to induce a different state. In the 80s, trust was defined as a sociological concept in interpersonal relationships (Johnson-George & Swap, 1982); as a relational attitude, therefore trust could be influenced through cultural outreach and self-management. Understanding trust as an interpersonal relationship insinuates however, that trust is like a ball passed between two feuding brothers; if they could learn to share the ball, they would be able to trust each other .

While Covey does maintain that trust can be improved through the analysis and adaptation of opportunity, risk, and credibility (297), he also claims that trust must be continually maintained, not only when there are problems but when there are none. Covey captures the idea of continual maintenance of trust through his concept of trust accounts, which serve as depositories of reputation and obligation (130). The trustee standard according to Covey is a playing field of expectations cognizant upon all people involved in the trust game and required of all, but whose rules are defined by the people who populate the field rather than a predefined set of notions delineating official procedures and regulations (83). By listening to others not only to words, but also to the eyes and the heart, trust deposits can be put into a trust account (212); when necessary, Covey believes withdrawals from trust accounts can be taken, and the cycle continues. Therefore no one situation of trust is the same; trust must be constantly watched over, acted upon, and analyzed.

While trust must be internally consistent, trust is primarily an external force. For me, one of Covey’s most interesting realities of trust is that trust is brand. Covey states that trust is built upon impressions, which are shown through integrity, honesty, straightforwardness, and other types of behavior (137). These impressions, when combined together create brand, and brand is the external force and outward expression of an organization. Regardless of whether the organization is a business or a family, personal brand results in solid dividends (265).

High trust equals high dividends, and as brand is an image of trust as an external force, so high trust equals high brand. High brand equals high dividends; the comparison of brand with trust is known as the “trust dividend” (17), a key point repeated in Covey’s text as a barometer of trust success. In order to gain the trust dividend, Covey recommends building brand through the steady application of the Core and Wave Principles in his trust theory, by using them as diagnostic tools for analysis in order to bring the greatest returns (269).

Trust is a behavior that must be developed through action. Academic studies today often refer to trust as an attitude, which is generally settled way of thinking or feeling, typically reflected in a person’s behavior. Some researchers have claimed that attitude is a summative evaluation of the consideration of right and wrong behaviors (Martinez-Tur & Peiro, 2009), which leads to risk and interdependence as conditions for trust (Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994; Whitener, et al., 1998). However, Covey has a strikingly different conception of trust, as he believes that trust is primarily a behavior which can be developed and changed; trust is not only a by-product of behavior, but an actual action which when trained properly can create openness and allow for credibility and reputation to increase the efficiency of an organization. Covey represents his belief through nearly 33% of his book taken up with methods of improving behavior (127-232). He divides these methods into the “13 Behaviors,” a subset of one of his five waves entitled “relationship trust” which he believes when improved upon can engender trust (34).

In order to change behavior, Covey recommends viewing behavior externally rather than internally; instead of understanding behavior with belief, he insists behavior should be compared with words, which in turn offer themselves as signals construing worth (128). Therefore, as behavior associates with words rather than beliefs, shifts in behavior are more easily managed (130), but only if done so holistically and in context through which Covey suggests using the 5 Waves of trust starting from the fifth and moving to the first in that order (304). Through a method of applying behavioral changes through an analysis of the 5 Waves, one can not only strengthen trust levels but even repair and restore broken trust. Covey strongly believes that the end more than justifies the means in the quest of mending trust issues, as results are the factor which converts distrust into trust (174).

Trust is bound to efficiency. The title of Covey’s book is The Speed of Trust, and Covey consistently claims that speed is bound to trust, just as love and respect are bound to a marriage or dividends are bound to success. He describes this relationship in the Trust Formula, which is: “High trust equals high speed and low cost, while low trust equals low speed and high cost” (13). Covey states that the view that trust is a slow process, one that is built over many years and lasts for many years is wrong; rather than slow, trust is one of the fastest aspects of organizational life that is both gained and lost, gained in a moment and lost in a moment but more powerful than can be imagined (25). The speed is trust is regulated by three different “accelerators”: commitment, principle, and openness, which when woven together in an act of integrity or absolved in an act of dishonesty or corruption, cause trust to be gained faster or lost faster (72).

Covey relates an interesting fact: in the modern era, “people have learned to trust a complete stranger” just through the sheer power and speed of technology (268). “Stranger trust” therefore is tied directly with efficiency and speed. Just as people have learned to trust strangers because of the speed of reputation, so efficiency can be lowered through the imposition of taxes such as the “spin tax” and the “withholding tax” (139) when people in an organization, having lost trust in leadership because of misinformation and white lies, withhold their own information and skill in an aura of distrust. Therefore in order to create an environment of trust, organizations must strive to foster a “spirit of transparency” (154) where nothing is hidden and agendas are questioned early and improved upon in a collaborative process.

Covey does not claim that trust is only defined by speed, however. Without patience, planning, and careful execution of strategies, trust is lost. While speed is integral in efficiency, so is care. According to a professor at Harvard Business School, when considering speed or careful planning, “it is better to have a grade-B strategy and grade-A execution than the other way around” (257). Furthermore, according to Admiral James Stockdale, “you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be” (186)1, meaning that only through careful planning, discipline, and confrontation of contextual factors can true efficiency be achieved. Covey also believes that efficiency is fundamentally tied to the art of listening; he refers to Drucker’s rule: “Listen first, speak last” (210). Therefore, as trust is bound to speed, speed is bound to efficiency, and efficiency is bound to patience, logically then trust is a complex paradox composed of disparate elements warring against one another while at the same time complementing one another for the end result.

Themes as tools. Covey sees his themes primarily as methods and strategies for improving behavior and increasing brand reputation. Each section of the book carefully divides ideas into steps and procedures, making each chapter very practical. However for me, I view his themes not as methods or strategies but as tools of analysis. For example, in reviewing trust levels in my classroom, applying the 13 Behaviors directly may cause more harm than good as the 13 Behaviors are founded primarily on western concepts of confrontation, upward transparency, and strength of resolve. In China, the eastern concepts of harmony, hiddenness, and soft power play a far greater role in shaping policy and leadership strategies. In order to accurately use Covey’s themes I must treat them as tools to apply to particular situations, sensitive to context and persons or actors involved in a particular context.


I have several critiques of Covey’s book The Speed of Trust. These three critiques are based mostly on particular errors in the genre in which Covey writes for, as he seems stuck between writing a book for organizations or writing a book for personal self-help. Firstly, Covey overemphasizes the role of self and the role of the home in regards to organizations. Secondly, he falls prey to the Narrative Fallacy in his attempt for creative enterprise as a writer. Finally, he utilizes traditional success listology and business rhetoric, causing his material to appear trite and simple, when in actuality his material is quite extensive and full of new paradigms in considering new theories of trust.

Covey believes the home is also an organization. The home is not an organization. To view the home as an organization does incredible disservice to the home. Children should not be considered assets. The love given between parents and passed to the children should never be seen in economic terms. While the parents do act as leaders, ultimately the leader of a spirit-led household is God. The home is often the absolute opposite of an organization, where grief is allowed, tears are encouraged, the bottom line is forgotten in lieu of grace, and success is reliant not on profit or result but on the journey itself. Successful organizations, while they may consider the journey of some importance, ultimately draw a line when learning impedes progress, rent, and profit. A family must always seek to fill the emotional and spiritual needs first, and trust the engines of society to train children in the ways of the world and the proper way to fend for oneself in a given culture with unique requirements and contexts.

Covey, like many of his contemporary business writers, falls into the pit of the narrative fallacy. The narrative fallacy, according to Taleb (2007), is using stories “to overinterpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths . . . [while looking] at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them.” Covey’s book is full of stories, so many stories that often the stories run over and through each other. The problem isn’t that Covey uses stories, but that he is following a pattern in genre where current business writing requires to use of stories to maintain relevance; a pattern which he uses only in tradition. In one chapter, Covey relates over ten stories totally unrelated to each other except through the thin veneer of logic he imposes upon them. Furthermore, according to the notes at the back of the book, only 2.7% of the references are actually academic sources. The other 97.3% of the references are collated articles from newspapers, leadership biographies, business agendas, websites, and random media interviews, including almost 50% of the references dedicated to the quotations Covey inserts throughout the book to serve as bookmarks from chapter to chapter.

The last criticism I have of Covey’s work is his use of success listology and business rhetoric. Success listology is the simplification of complex business principles into simple 1-2-3 step procedures: “by following these steps blindly, you too can be successful and happy.” While many of his tactics may show fruit, maintaining an attitude of follow first, understand later, is too blind for my comfort. Answers are never easy, and if true change is to occur people must wrestle with the difficulties of decisions, or else true change does not occur. Change must begin in the heart, and only then can change transform.

In my work in China, I have encountered a crisis in trust. I am a stranger in a strange land, full of complexity and mystery. My hope is that through careful analysis of each particular situation, I can more fully identify with my students, and through that identification understand their language of trust. While the speed of trust changes everything, the language of trust is everything.


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Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. Free Press: New York.

Deutch, M. (1958). Trust and suspicion. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 265-279.

Johnson-George, C. E., & Swap, W. C. (1982). Measurement of specific interpersonal trust: Construction and validation of a scale to assess trust in a specific other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 1306-1317.

Martinez-Tur, V. & Peiro, J. M. (2009). The trust episode in organizations: Implications for private and public social capital. Social Science Information, 48(2): 143-174.

Rotter, J. B. (1967). A new scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust. Journal of Personality, 35, 651-665.

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Yamagishi, T., & Yamagishi, M. (1994). Trust and commitment in the United States and Japan. Motivation and Emotion, 18: 129-166.

1The Stockdale Paradox, as quoted from Jim Collin’s Good to Great, pg. 86